The forgotten history of Polabian Slavs

Thousands of yeas ago, when Aryan tribes first reached northern Europe, they started naming the local landscape in their native “Indo-European” language,  a language known as “Aryan” until the 20th century. “Polabian Slavs” is a collective name for the group of Slavic tribes that had once inhabited the area around the river Elbe, a major river of central Europe, flowing trough what is today Czech republic and Germany. The etymology of the word Elbe (in Latin Albis) is probably “white” – the same as one of the possible etymologies for the word “Aryan”. This idea is supported by the fact that Polabian Slavs (Slavs around Elbe) were collectively known as Wends – a word that comes from Celtic “vento” – “white”.

The Polabian Slavs

Once a large confederation of independent tribes, Polabian Slavs were gradually assimilated into France, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, and other freshly formed countries. Today, the only remainder of this vast nation are Sorbs of Lusatia, a region divided between Germany and Poland. A greater part of Lusatia lies on the territory of German countries of Saxony and Brandenburg, but their territory once included almost one-third of German territory, including the city of Berlin. A process of their Germanization had started already in the early middle ages, leaving only some 60 000 Sorbs of Lusatia on a tiny fraction of the territory they had once occupied.


This assimilation is also confirmed by genetics. According to Eupedia, Slavic haplogroup R1a is the second dominant in Eastern and Northern parts of Germany, and for this reason it is wrongly labeled as “Germanic” on Eupedia, even though Germanic haplogroup would rather be R1b, as we can see on samples from all other Germanic countries.


These were all facts, and very few will disagree with anything mentioned so far. The real disagreements appear only when it comes to the question of Slavic arrival to the region. According to Wikipedia:

“The Polabian Slavs started settling in the territory of modern Germany in the 6th century. They were largely conquered by Saxons and Danes since the 9th century and subsequently included within the Holy Roman Empire. The tribes were gradually Germanized and assimilated in the following centuries; the Sorbs are the only descendants of the Polabian Slavs to have retained their identity and culture.”

A similar version appears on Wikipedia article on Wends, where they are shown as newcomers to Germanic lands:

“West Slavs moved into the areas between the Rivers Elbe and Oder – moving from east to west and from south to north. There they assimilated the remaining Germanic population that had not left the area in the Migration period.”

However, this theory is seriously challenged by the latest genetic and linguistic research. It seems that it was the bearers of R1a who first settled the northern parts of Europe. Eupedia article on R1a states the following:

The first major expansion of R1a took place with the westward propagation of the Corded Ware (or Battle Axe) culture (2800-1800 BCE) from the northern forest-steppe in the Yamna homeland. This was the first wave of R1a into Europe… The Corded Ware R1a people would have mixed with the pre-Germanic I1 and I2 aborigines, which resulted in the first Indo-European culture in Germany and Scandinavia, although that culture could not be considered Proto-Germanic – it was simply Proto-Indo-European at that stage, or perhaps Proto-Balto-Slavic.

Germanic languages probably did not appear before the Nordic Bronze Age (1800-500 BCE). Proto-Germanic language probably developed as a blend of two branches of Indo-European languages, namely the Proto-Balto-Slavic language of the Corded-Ware culture (R1a-Z283) and the later arrival of Proto-Italo-Celto-Germanic people from the Unetice culture (R1b-L11). This is supported by the fact that Germanic people are a R1a-R1b hybrid, that these two haplogroups came via separate routes at different times, and that Proto-Germanic language is closest to Proto-Italo-Celtic, but also shares similarities with Proto-Slavic.

While reading this text I could not escape the impression that the author kept mentioning the word “Germanic” before the arrival of Unetice culture just in order to stay “historically accurate”, even though there is absolutely no evidence to make such claims. Labeling I1 and I2 aborigines as Germanic is quite dubious, as according to most studies their language may have not even been Indo-European, and most likely related to modern Basque.

The Lusitani or Lusitanian Sorbs?

Changing the perspective in such way that Slavs were the first settlers and Germanic tribes the newcomers, opens up a whole new set of interesting possibilities. For example, on the map of pre-Roman tribes of Iberia we see a region called Lusitania, and a tribe of Seurbi in it. And yet no historian dares to connect them to Lusitanian Sorbs of Germany, as this map depicts Portugal from 6th to 2nd century BC! As we saw, Lusitanian Sorbs had supposedly arrived in Germany from the east, not west, and only a 1000 years later.


A map of Lusitania, 6-2 century BC Portugal, Wikipedia

It seems that most of the historians nowadays are so willing to protect the mainstream dogma that they are not capable of seeing the obvious. Wikipedia article on Lusitania states:

The etymology of the name of the Lusitani (who gave the Roman province their name) remains unclear. The Lusitani, who were Indo-European speakers, established themselves in the region in the 6th century BC, but historians and archeologists are still undecided about their ethnogenesis.”

The city of Salamanca, bordering with the territory of Lusitania, was known as Salmatica by the Romans. Its etymology is unclear. But if we revert back the rhotacism in which R becomes L, characteristic for this region, we get the word Sarmatica.

Whoever the Lusatians were, once the Roman armies had reached Iberian peninsula, they had no choice but to migrate towards the east, as only the ocean was lying to the west. We do know that Rome had many brutal campaigns against them. In the words of Strabo:

The country north of the Tagus, Lusitania, is the greatest of the Iberian nations, and is the nation against which the Romans waged war for the longest times.

The Lutici

Besides Lusitanian Sorbs, another famous tribe was now extinct Lutici. Their first mention comes from the 9th century. Their territory was just above the Lusitanian Sorbs, in the Northern parts of Germany.


However, there are indications that Lutici came to this region from the west, and not from the east as the mainstream theories claim. For one, it has already been proposed that one of the most famous Belgian cities carry their name to this date – a city of Liege (German: Lüttich). Truth be told, this theory is more popular with Slavic authors, but even the official etymology, that claims it to be of Germanic origin, actually has a closer match in the Slavic languages:

“The name is Germanic in origin and is reconstructible as *liudik-, from the Germanic word *liudiz “people”, which is found in for example Dutch lui(den), lieden, German Leute”.

But here is the question, if the modern German word for people is Leute, while “liudi” still means “people” in virtually all Slavic languages, can this etymology really be reconstructible as Germanic?

But there is more to this. Wikipedia article on Lutici offers different variations of the spelling of their name throughout history. We see that options Leutici, Leuticians, Leutizi and Leutizans were also popular in Latin and German. Could we then assume that even the ancient name of Paris – Lutetia, could come from this tribe?  The origin of this word remains unresolved to this day.

We should also mention a famous university of Sorbonne, founded by Robert de Sorbon in the 13th century. However, it is not the university that is interesting for our story, but the village of Sorbon where Robert was born, situated half way between Paris and Liege. Can this all be just a strange coincidence or do we actually see the tribal names of Polabian Slavs, scattered much further to the east than they should be, and much earlier than they appear in the west?

The aftermath

That Polabian Slavs were pushed from the west to the east is actually a very well-known fact, at least from the 9th century. This is the period when Carolingian rulers of Francia started their expansion to the east, assimilating Slavic territory into the ever-growing empire. The border between Franks and Slavs was known as Sorbian March in those days. (Limes Sorabicus in Latin) On the highlighted Wikipedia article we also see this German map, showing the tribes of Leutizen and Sorben just behind that border.


In conclusion, it seems that the first mention of Lusatian Sorbs appears in the 2nd BC Portugal. We may also see Lutici and Sorbs in France during the early ancient Roman times. Only after that they appear around the river Elbe, from the 6th century AD. However, the eastern connection is not disputable, as behind the river Elbe once lied a Baltic Sarmatia, and in this area R1a haplogroup and Balto-Slavic languages remain dominant to this day. The question is only – did Slavs also occupy most of the western parts of northern Europe, prior to the arrival of Germanic tribes, and later Rome? Were they amongst the original bearers of R1a haplogroup and Indo-European languages, who had mixed with the indigenous population of Europe, thousands of years before the Germanic migration to the north?

Once the Roman empire had crumbled, France has been ruled by Merovingians. This dynasty, that some authors relate to the Slavic tribe of Moravichi (neighbors of Lusatian Sorbs and Lutici) didn’t have serious hostilities with Polabian Slavs. In Frankish annals we see that Merovingians considered themselves “Sicambrians”, a mysterious word which many historians have connected with the tribe of Cimbri, whose origins are presumably Germanic, even though there is no firm evidence for such claims. However, Diodorus Siculus wrote in the 1st century BC:

Those who are called Lusitanians are the bravest of all Cimbri

The reign of Merovingians was a surprisingly short one, and their dynasty was replaced by that of Charlemagne – “the father of Europe”, a man who will reshape forever the borders of the old continent, and restore once again the power of Rome. He will expand his territory even beyond the river Elbe to the East and as far as Serbs of the Balkans to the South. From this period onward Polabian Slavs had a choice to migrate further towards east or south or to become assimilated in German and French nations. Should we then be surprised that their history and origins needed to be forgotten?


  1. Nice write up! I have to comment, I think it’s remarkable that in this same Lusitania region of Portugal, there’s a prominent, and ancient city named Braga.

    This is extremely close to the Czech spelling of the capital city Prague, which in Czech is spelled Praha but you also sometimes see rendered as Praga (in German, Prag). Indeed, if you read Old Czech documents from 1,000+ years ago, it’s not uncommon to see the city’s named spelled Fraga or indeed, Braga.

    It would not surprise me in the least, based on what you’ve written here, to learn of some kind of connection between Braga, Portugal and Praha, Czech Republic.

  2. It’s interesting as well that in this Lusitania there’s a major city named Braga.

    Braga is in fact one of the older, more archaic toponyms for the capital city of Prague .. which is spelled Praha in Czech, but can also be rendered as Praga, or more anciently, Fraga and/or Braga.

  3. I am Serbian and my native language is Serbian. In Serbia we call Lusitanian Sorbs – Lužički Srbi which means “Serbs from the woods”. As for etymology of Lutici, in Serbia we call them Ljutići, the first association that comes to native Serbian speakers mind is “angry crowd” or “angry tribe” since “ljut” in Serbian means angry and suffix “ići” represents affiliation with the tribe (check my second name, if I put “i” on the end of it, it would represent affiliation with the larger tribe).
    Thanks for great article!

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